If you ask anyone about the most memorable part of their favorite film, many will mention a great line of dialogue. All of us are able to quote a few well-loved lines from classic movies, good or bad. Monty Python fans are phenomenally good at this. We spout off the line and smiling heads nod in synchronous recollection. A well-remembered line of dialogue cuts to the center of mutual appreciation of a particular film. When we try and explain a favorite moment of action, however, we end up meandering down a crooked path of personal interpretations that the other party may or may not share. That's because we all see a scene in our own way. We see the same scene, but we each remember different moments and we remember them through our own emotional filters. Dialogue is literal; it can be printed in black and white and everyone hears exactly the same words, no matter how many people watch it. However, the way in which we interpret a line or an exchange of several lines varies greatly. And that can affect our basic understanding of the story's main plot points.
Take the famous scene from Gone With The Wind in which Rhett leaves Scarlett for the last time with his now famous line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." While I might think that Rhett did the right thing and Scarlett got exactly what she deserved, you, on the other hand, may consider Rhett's departure a cruel abandonment. It's all dependent on each viewer's emotional individuality outside the realm of the film's story.
Okay. Time for a quick explanation. See the handsome gentleman in the photo? He is Don Biehn, an acting professor from the ECU Theatre Arts department back in the mid 1980s. Don, who is currently enjoying what I hear is a great retirement, had the most intense focus of any professor I've ever had. He had some great sayings, which he posted on the classroom walls. And if you look over his left shoulder, you can spot one of my favorites.
"An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words."
Don is a firm believer that what a character does is infinitely more important that what he says. You can have all the great dialogue you want – really catchy, witty, memorable stuff – but if the behavior behind it isn't honest and real, then the scene loses its believability and truthfulness.
This is pretty heavy stuff for actors; it puts the responsibility for the emotional element of the film squarely in their hands. But where does that leave the screenwriter? Aren't we tasked to come up with dialogue? Aren't we supposed to breathe life into our characters and give them the gift of intelligent speech? Isn't the writer – the person responsible for creating the story, the characters, and the action – the most important element of the film?
Not really. Ask the average moviegoer who uttered the classic line, "Here's looking at you, kid." Easy question, right? Now ask him who wrote it. You'll probably get a shrug, followed by, "No idea." It's not because Julius Epstein was a forgettable writer. The screenplay for Casablanca is considered by many to be probably the most perfect screenplay ever written. We usually don't remember the writer because when we watch a film, we gain the most understanding by our comprehension of the visuals.
Try this: Take a random scene from a film you've never seen before. First, try just listening to it without watching it. Only the audio. See if you can figure out what's happening in the scene using only the dialogue. Now, reverse it. Watch another part of the film, but this time with the sound muted. If you're like most people, you'll understand the meaning of a scene much easier by watching it because our minds are trained to look to a person's face and body language for understanding. In fact, when I tried just listening to a scene, I found myself picturing the actors in my mind, imagining their facial expressions as the scene progressed. We can hear all the dialogue from a film but it just doesn't ring true for us unless we can see the actors as they speak it and react to it.
Take, for example, the first fifteen minutes of the film There Will Be Blood. There is no dialogue at all. However, we still are able to learn the complete backstory of Dainel Planview and his son. After an accident claims the life of one of his co-workers, there is a moment where Daniel stands before the man's orphaned son, sizing up what to do with him. You can just see the wheels of thought on his face. He's scheming a future for himself as "family man" running a "family business" – a man people will admire and want to invest their money in. No dialogue needed.
Film producers and screenwriting teachers all say the same thing when a script is considered to be too dialogue-heavy: "Don't tell me. Show me."
It's the balance of action and dialogue that defines a film. I think most films fall easily into one (sometimes two) of three categories: Action, character-driven, and excessively intellectual. Now, before you throw a bucket of popcorn at me, let me explain each one:
Action: An action film is typically sparse in dialogue, allowing action to move the story along. Watch a Michael Bay film. Within the first few minutes, you'll probably stop caring about what the characters are saying in favor of the sheer thrill of seemingly non-stop action.
Character-driven: A character-driven piece usually features more dialogue than action, however, the dialogue only serves to spark the characters into an emotional reaction with one another. A good indie film will usually fall into this category, not only because of an artistic preference of characters' emotional exchange over raw action, but because a limited budget prohibits a lot of stunts and special effects.
Excessively Intellectual: These are films that feature very little action, very little meaningful character interaction, but an extraordinary amount of pretentious pseudo-analytical dialogue. Just a bunch of intellectuals sitting around talking. Henry Jaglom, you know who you are.
These three classifications are, of course, very different. They contain decidedly varying balances of action and dialogue and, in the case of the third example, not much of a balance at all. While the first two examples stand successfully on their own, a really great film might combine heavy action and character-driven dialogue.
In the end, I think characters' actions are responsible for our emotional understanding of a film. Dialogue gives us, the audience, the logical grounding for the explanations of a character's behavior. But the behavior itself is what really connects us on a human level. We have to believe in what the characters are doing to themselves and each other – and we have to know that what they're doing is truthful and real.
This all makes perfect sense while watching a film, but what about while writing one? As screenwriters, how do we get emotionally rich characters onto our pages? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Take an acting class. A good acting workshop will help you more fully understand the emotional exchange between characters. The Meisner technique is particularly good at this, since it focuses more on a spontaneous moment-to-moment emotional relationship between characters.
2. Trash the dialogue. Try getting rid of all the dialogue in your script. Do you still have a basic idea of what's going on by reading only the action? If not, you probably have too much dialogue.
3. It's not what you do, it's what the other person makes you do. This is another great "Meisnerism". A character's emotional state shouldn't originate from his own state, but rather the state that his interaction with the other character puts him in. It's just basic cause and effect. You're emotionless until an outside force triggers your emotion.
4. Place characters in emotionally charged situations before the scene starts. Make sure your characters enter the scene coming from someplace that affects them. The husband isn't just coming home from the store after buying milk; he's coming home from the store where he ran into his ex-wife. If a character is already in the scene at the start, decide what she was doing before the scene starts. Maybe she's folding laundry. But she's not just folding laundry, of course – she's folding laundry after getting a phone call from a friend regarding her husband. Now, that's going to be a highly charged scene.
5. Give your character a difficult and emotionally charged task. Don't just have your character cooking dinner. He's cooking an elaborate Japanese meal to surprise his wife for their anniversary, hoping it will help revive their failing marriage – and she's due home in 10 minutes. Amazing things can happen when a character distracts another character who is doing something difficult at the last minute.
6. Act it out. Grab a willing partner and try acting out the scene. Be aware of what the other person is making you do. Look for moments when the action doesn't seem to have any emotional basis. Sometimes it's hard to tell when those moments occur so try getting a third person to stop the action and ask one of you, "What is he making you want to do?"
Once you've given your characters a strong emotional base for their actions, you'll have a story that is more believable and truthful. The kind of story we humans can truly relate to.